Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Legend of Joaquin Murrieta

One of the fascinating legends from early California history is that of Joaquin Murrieta. Joaquin has been viewed as a bandit and as a hero by different people. His story has prompted controversy and
has been mentioned in movies. As with many older histories, Murrieta story is difficult to pin down for exact facts. Even his name has been spelled in various ways: Murieta, Murrieta, Murietta, etc. Still, his story is worth reading. One of the best known accounts was written by John Rollin Ridge in 1859.

Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, relations between the Mexican population of California and those of the Anglo-Americans were very strained. There were many reports of Mexicans losing their long time homes and being hanged for trumped up offenses. Joaquin Murrieta, and his wife, lived in California and were trying to live peaceably.

Gold had been discovered in California. Murrieta had a small claim that produced some gold. A band of men approached him and denied him the right to dig for gold. Murrieta disagreed with them. The men knocked him out, then raped and murdered his wife. Still, Joaquin didn’t begin his life of crime.

One day, Murrieta visited a friend named Valenzuela, who gave Joaquin a horse to ride home. Some men in town believed the horse had been stolen. The men became angry. Joaquin explained where he had gotten the horse and tried to tell them his friend was an honest man. They didn’t believe him, but tied him to a tree and beat him with a lash. His friend, Valenzuela, did not get to speak at all, but was hung for being a horse thief. For Murrieta, this event changed his outlook, and he began a life of crime: robbing and stealing horses.
In 1853, Governor John Bigler signed legislature to authorize the forming of a band of California Rangers. Captain Harry Love, the leader of the Rangers, went in pursuit of the group of bandits headed by Joaquin Murrieta. Four other Joaquins were part of the outlaw band, so many referred to them as the five Joaquins. They were wanted for assault, robbery, horse stealing and murder.

The Rangers rode hard for three months trying to track down the bandits. In July of 1853, they had a shootout with a band of men, killing two of them. One was identified as Three-Fingered Jack; the other as Joaquin Murrieta. To prove they were dead, the Rangers cut off Three-Fingered Jack’s hand and Joaquin Murrieta’s head, placed them in separate jars of alcohol and took them to Sacramento. The jars were on display in Sacramento before traveling to San Francisco and other parts of California. People could pay $1 to see the head of Joaquin Murrieta.

Some say the California Rangers got the wrong man. Even today, there is speculation that Murrieta escaped and the head on display was not his, but someone else’s. Since the head and jar were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake we will probably never know the truth.

The movie character I mentioned earlier, patterned after  Joaquin Murrieta, is the figure of Zorro. Zorro was said to fight injustice, and many thought that was what Murrieta did. He wasn’t always seen as an outlaw. In the 1998 version of Zorro, Murrieta made an appearance in the movie. He was killed by Captain Harrison Love (a fictional version of Captain Harry Love), and the fictitious brother, Alejandro became Zorro.

Growing up, I loved the tales of Zorro, the masked bandit who fought for the rights of the poor people. He was like a Robin Hood figure. Do you remember watching Zorro? Can you think of any other historical figures who were immortalized in fiction?

Nancy J Farrier is an award winning author who lives in Southern California in the Mojave Desert. She loves the Southwest and interesting historical past. Nancy and her husband have five children. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. Nancy is represented by Karen Ball of The Steve Laube Literary Agency. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website:


  1. Very interesting post, Nancy. I remember watching Zorro. Thank you for sharing

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

    1. Thank you, Melanie. I used to watch Zorro too, and loved him.

  2. I absolutely adored Zorro movies as a child, and still enjoy them today, Nancy! Thanks so much for sharing the man behind the legend. :)

    1. Jennifer, yes I adored Zorro too. He was such a great hero.

  3. Amazing how one chain of events leads to another and how good men sometimes become something they never intended or dreamed up through the horrific deeds of others. And, one of the Zorro movies (maybe the sequel to the one you mentioned) Alejandro's has a little boy named Joaquin. Cutest little bugger ever! :)

  4. I'm wondering if Murrieta, CA is named after Joaquin Murrieta? A gory and interesting post about CA that I had never heard. Would Roy Rogers and Dale Evans count as immortalized heroes? sharon, CA wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  5. Is this Capt Harrison (Harry) Love, one in the same as the one from St. Joe, Arkansas?